A top Senate Democrat is again urging the Department of Homeland Security to focus immigration enforcement efforts on violent criminals rather than agricultural employers and farm workers.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on Sept. 3 sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. The senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee said she has been “receiving troubling feedback from farmers in California that (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is increasing I-9 worksite audits against agricultural employers.”

Feinstein raised the same issue to former ICE Director John Morton in June 2012.

Feinstein said in the letter that agricultural employers face shortages of legal harvesters, pickers, pruners, packers and other farm workers.

“As you can imagine, with approximately 81,000 farms in California, I am very concerned that these audits will result in significant harm to the agricultural industry and the state’s overall economy,” according to the letter.

Feinstein said I-9 enforcement audits against agricultural employers makes finding enough workers much harder, because workers who have not provided proper work authorization documents must be released after an audit.

“Because the reality is that the majority of farm workers in the U.S. are foreign-born and unauthorized -- which is well-known -- I am afraid that this aggressive worksite enforcement strategy will deprive the agricultural sector of most of its workforce and cause farmers and related industries across the country significant economic harm, as well as driving up food prices for consumers,” Feinstein said in the letter.

Until Congress passes immigration reform, Feinstein urged the Department of Homeland Security focus on criminals. Otherwise, continued enforcement of I-9 audits in agriculture could reduce fruit and vegetable production, shifting dependence on foreign farms, according to her letter.

“I respectfully suggest that you adopt a similar policy of exercising prosecutorial discretion to defer enforcement against agricultural employers and workers, and concentrate instead on removing those who would and have harmed our society, rather than those who contribute to our vital agricultural economy and heritage, and the safe and high-quality food supply that benefits all Americans,” she said in the letter.

Fresh produce growers appreciate Feinstein’s support, said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.

“Her letter was right on and very timely and needed to help the business community being impacted by these audits and these raids,” he said Sept. 5. “It is unfortunate that the industry is targeted in a way that seems unfair and unbalanced in terms of the impact it could have.”